Olga Oksman is a reporter based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Gizmodo, Forbes, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
“Why isn’t there a Starbucks for hugs?”
Samantha Hess and Becky Rodrigues are paid to hug people. Cuddlers for hire, they will hold clients close, in a platonic manner, for $60 to $80 an hour. If being held by a stranger doesn’t sound appealing, there are also platonic friends for rent. They will be happy to meet for dinner, go shopping, or just take a walk, for a fee. There are supposedly 526,873 such people available to choose from on the website RentAFriend. The average rate is $23 per hour.
In the past few years, companionship businesses have cropped up in various parts of the U.S. While they’re still far from mainstream, a handful of them are having no trouble finding lonely clients and bringing in profits. Snuggle Buddies, a cuddling outfit based in New Jersey, has a roster of 125 freelance cuddlers and takes in about $16,000 a month in revenue, according to its founder, Evan Carp.
The idea of paying to cuddle may sound laughable, desperate, or even skeevy. But these businesses are serving a diverse swath of Americans with a variety of needs. Some clients seek companionship—two recent surveys found that around 40 percent of adults say they’re lonely, which represents a major increase over the 20 percent of adults who said the same back in 1980. Other clients are victims of physical abuse, or suffer from PTSD, and find cuddling therapeutic.The idea of paid companionship goes back many years and was once common enough to pop up in literature, as it did in Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth, which features a character who lives off the generosity of her wealthy friends, acting as confidante and travel companion in return for free vacations, dresses, and trinkets.
Still, the advent of professional cuddling and friend rentals seems to be serving a distinctly modern need. Everyone I talked to in the companionship industry echoed the same view that while digital technology may provide connection, it doesn’t provide physical touch and can’t replace real-life friendships. Samantha Hess, a professional cuddler, theorizes that another reason many customers are drawn to her business is the idea of human touch unaccompanied by judgment. “We have this emotional reciprocity and emotional baggage attached to friends and family,” she says. “I don't have emotional history since I am a stranger, so there is no worry that I will judge them.”
Hess, who has identified and catalogued 65 cuddling positions and written a book about cuddling, also teaches couples how to hold each other. Cuddle Up to Me, which Hess founded in 2013, employs three other cuddlers, all of them women, though Hess is currently training a male cuddler who she expects will start working by the end of the year. The company’s rate is $1 per minute, and books sessions lasting between 15 minutes and 5 hours.When Hess started her company, she thought most of her clients would be elderly widowers who felt lost without their lifelong companions. But people from diverse backgrounds are drawn to her services: She says her clients range in age from their mid-20s to their 70s, and include both men and women. Encouraged by the knowledge that they won’t be judged, most end up talking during the entire session with Hess about their deepest insecurities.
A lot of the customers of RentAFriend, according to its founder, Scott Rosenbaum, are business travelers who are tired of eating alone in new cities every month. They use the service to have another person to sit with at the bar in the evening or grab a bite when they are away from home. Another group of customers is people who just moved to a new area and don’t yet know anyone.
Sometimes, the purpose of these businesses goes beyond companionship. Hess and another cuddler I spoke to hope that it will one day gain traction as a form of therapy. Human beings have been shown to benefit from touch—in studies, it has been linked to feelings of relaxation, increases in the hormone oxytocin, and decreases in blood pressure. Paying a stranger for a massage in a semi-undressed state has long been socially acceptable, so why would cuddling while fully dressed be all that bad?
This talk of therapeutic benefits is more than just marketing hype. Some of the people Hess sees have been physically abused, experienced PTSD, are on the autism spectrum, suffer from cerebral palsy or ALS, have missing limbs or disfigurements, or struggle with insomnia, addiction, or homelessness. She has clients who are recovering from cancer or struggling through difficult divorces. Some are people who work from home or work socially-isolating graveyard shifts. She even sees mothers of young children who feel worn out in their caretaker roles and want someone to give to them for a change.At Snuggle Buddies, most of Becky Rodrigues’s clients are a mix of single and married men in their 40s and 50s. She also sees some younger men, who are in their 20s and usually have religious backgrounds that made them feel shameful about human touch. Rodrigues thinks that she sees so few women coming in because women are more likely to believe that affection “isn’t real if you have to pay for it.” She thinks that women have an easier time satisfying their need for physical touch from friends, because it’s more socially acceptable than for men.
Like a therapist that enters the profession to deal with his or her own problems, a number of cuddlers went into the business out of their own isolation and need for contact. Hess had married her high-school sweetheart, only to find herself divorced and lost at 28. Carp, who started Snuggle Buddies in 2013, had spent six years suffering from depression and chronic pain. He felt isolated from people and spent most of his days on the computer, alone. Most of his social contact was limited to seeing doctors. Both Hess and Carp longed for more warmth and touch. Hess remembers thinking at the time, "Why isn't there a Starbucks for hugs?"
Rosenbaum got the idea for RentAFriend from a similar service operating in Japan, where social isolation is more common than in the U.S. and where there are special cafes where lonely customers can drink coffee in the company of stuffed animals. Rosenbaum thought there were enough lonely Americans that the idea would work in the U.S. as well. With the proliferation of dating websites, he figured the format of browsing online profiles was already familiar to most people. His hunch bore out and these days RentAFriend brings in annual revenues "in the seven-figure range," Rosenbaum says.While being a rental friend can be a relaxing experience, the work of a cuddler can be draining. There are nights Hess comes home crying, unable to bear all of the heavy things she heard throughout the day. She carries several T-shirts with her on the job, in case clients cry on her. She limits herself to no more than five hours a day of cuddling work and often comes home to her boyfriend spent, seeking the affection she has been giving all day to others.
It does not help that some people are surprisingly dismissive of, or even upset with, Hess and her work. She says she regularly receives hate mail and even death threats. In an average week, she estimates, she gets around 30 emails telling her she is an awful person. The people writing these notes are often devoutly religious and angry that she is promoting close touch outside of marriage. Others accuse her service of being a cover for prostitution. Still others tell her she is monetizing love and ruining the world through her practice.
And of course there are the safety concerns. Rodrigues says she is good at detecting when people think that because she’s cuddling with them, it can lead to something else. Acutely aware of the risks, Carp has his cuddlers, Rodrigues among them, check in before and right after a session and logs the addresses of clients in a database. One RentAFriend I talked to told me that to prevent clients from making any moves, she says up front on her profile that she is in a relationship, and cuts off clients from repeat meetings if she thinks they get the wrong idea.
Professional cuddlers often talk about their interest in fostering mental health, but the people who sign up as rental friends often have different reasons for doing what they do. Some do it for the money, and always charge an hourly rate. There is another subset that does it for a free ticket, says Rosenbaum. Instead of charging cash for their companionship, they accept payment in the form of a ticket to join their lonely client at a baseball game or a concert that they would otherwise not get to attend.
Lorraine Christie, one paid companion in New York who I spoke to, joined RentAFriend in 2011 when she saw an ad on Craigslist. She was a youth counselor at the time, so being social and listening to others came naturally to her. Now, when she meets clients, she has a set routine: She opens with a joke to put them at ease, and usually hopes that by about 10 minutes into the meeting, people forget she is charging for her time. Christie estimates that 90 percent of her New York clientele are locals, with a mix of men and women from Westchester, Yonkers, New Jersey and the city itself. Meetings vary from one-off invitations to have lunch during the workday to ongoing requests for a shopping buddy. Most people ask her to a mix of concerts, work dinners, movies, jogs and walks in the city.
Christie likens her work to being a “speed-dating therapist,” with strangers unloading their issues onto her with the knowledge that she is not part of their social network and they will likely never see her again. She even has one client, a local who lives in Brooklyn, that asked to be a pen pal. The person wanted someone to write to at the end of the day. They’ve never met in person.Esme Seraifiel, another friend I talked to, has some guesses as to why people these days are eager to pay for companionship. She thinks that digital interactions have given people a taste of what it’s like to be able to craft clever responses and upload only the most flattering photos, which makes interactions in person seem less comfortable by comparison. In this context, the idea of a risk-free, on-demand friend can seem very appealing. Indeed, Christie has told me that she has never met anyone who hoped to be friends outside of the service. Clients, she says, are looking for a friendship that they can dictate all the terms of—where and when they meet, or if they ever meet again.
In contrast to Christie’s gentle manner and soft voice, Seraifiel is brassy and all business. “My time is valuable and I am not in a place of feeling lonely and I have a lot of things going on,” she says. “If you ask for my time, you have to pay. On some level that may seem heartless, but if they really wanted to talk, if they can’t support what I want, then this exchange is not going to be equal and I will be resentful,” she explains. Seraifiel makes it clear to potential clients that she always charges a fee of $50 an hour, even if they just want to talk on the phone.
When, due to a misunderstanding, at the end of our interview Seraifiel inquired if I would be paying her for the conversation, I froze. As is journalistic custom, I have never paid for an interview. What I had thought was a voluntary conversation based on shared curiosity had been, in her mind, a business deal. Stumbling over my words, I told Seraifiel she’d need to work out this misunderstanding with the RentAFriend administrator who coordinated the interview. Even though I didn’t pay, I suddenly felt very unclean as I hung up the phone.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.